Emerald green eyes did not blink as it looked at Danielle. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have eyelids. It had hair made of coniferous needles. As she watched the needles thinned, looking more and more like real hair but pine green.
“This is worse than my worst nightmares,” Danielle said to herself.
When it spoke, its voice was the crunch of heavy feet on dry leaves and the moan of the wind in the branches.
“Carson.” It spoke, looking at Danielle, who had volunteered to see it up close. Everyone was ready to attack it. She had begged them for caution.
“Sorry?” she asked.
“What's it saying?” asked the knights on the wall.
“It said Carson. Who’s Carson?” she yelled up the thirty feet of the granite wall.
The creature was still morphing before her. Its face had been vaguely human to begin with but while they stood a spear's length apart it seemed an invisible carpenter was expertly crafting it into an excellent replica of a woman. The body bulged from being almost nothing to a bulk as if it was building itself up for a fight, literally.
“Not a fucking clue Miss Longbow. We’ll soon find out though. Odd. It’s a question in the old tongue.” It was Sir Dewar yelling back down from the battlements. His weary voice was almost as gravelly as the thing in front of her.
All the while those eyes watched her. From green gems they were becoming eerily human. The pupil came into focus like a black seed floating to the surface in milk. The iris took on pattern. The curves of the cheeks and the lines of the mouth became smoother.
Skin which had been like bark on its arms was taking on the look of fabric and turning green across the chest. Lines like stitching emerged from the surface.
Finally she saw what it was doing.
“It’s turning into me! Its shape. Its face. It’s copying me.”
“Kill the fucking thing then,” Sir Dewar told her. “It’s clearly evil.”
“Carson a tha seo?” Said the shapeshifter. Danielle heard the upward inflection at the end. It was asking a question in an increasingly human voice.
“Who is Carson?” she asked. “Who are you?”
“Is mise cuiraduile.” It pointed to itself. “Tha thu tineduile.” It pointed to her. The hand seemed to have fingernails and creases on the joints. It was still the colour of bark but otherwise shaped just like her.
“I think if it was evil, it would have attacked me by now.” Danielle yelled up to the men and women on the wall.
“Those trees are cursed girl,” said Sir Dewar, who was old enough to call anyone a boy or girl without being patronising. “We all know it. They saved us against the imperials during the siege but who’s to say we’re not about to pay for it now?”
Looking at the unnatural mimic before her it was hard to refute the old knight’s logic. Everything had a price. She’d thought the cost of surviving the siege was the nightmares of watching those cursed trees devour men, screaming to the last. She’d thought her burden was the horror of the massacre at Crosston Hills.
To be saved from the certain death of imperial annihilation, did it have a greater toll? Danielle didn’t see hostility on the face in front of her. She saw confusion. Was it the creature’s confusion or her reflection?
“Carson? Carson a tha seo? Tha thu tineduile.” It pointed to her and then to itself. “Is mise curaduile.”
“Curaduile?” Danielle pointed to the thing from the tree. “Tineduile?” She pointed to herself. It nodded and slow clapped as if she was a moron.
“It thinks I’m an idiot.” She shouted up to the defenders on the wall.
“You volunteered to go down there, and you haven’t cut it in half yet, so I’m inclined to agree with it girl. Kill the blasted thing and be done with it.”
“If I killed everyone who underestimated me, I’d have stabbed you earlier Sir Dewar.” She was going hoarse from yelling. The monster was looking up at those on the wall. Its expression was mocking, that wasn’t a reflection of her.
A horse rode up along the road from the northern gate with Lady Guinevere atop in her armour. She jumped from the saddle heavily.
The curaduile flinched as the lady of Leonor smacked the ground and winced.
“I was told it speaks the old tongue?” Guinevere asked. Her fading brown hair fell over her face as she bent to rub her ankle. The severe features were contorted in pain as she looked up.
“C' ainm a tha ort?” she asked.
“Is mise curaduile,” it replied, looking relieved at Guinevere who didn’t seem scared or even surprised by it.
“It says it is a warrior of the leaf,” the lady translated.
“Tha thu tineduile.” It pointed at her and Danielle and then up at the people on the wall.
“And we are the fire people. That must mean human.”
“How can you talk to it? How are you calm?” The soldier from Fisher’s Gasp asked. She felt less and less that she would need her sword. More and more in awe of Guinevere’s casual conversation with an unheard of magical creature.
“Not much else to do is there?” The lady replied, then asked the curaduile how it could talk the king’s tongue.
What emerged from the warrior of the leaf next was the most unusual sound Danielle heard for the rest of her life.
It laughed. Not only did the impersonator laugh, but the tree behind it laughed at the same time. The sound came from the trunk of the tree. It came from the branches and the leaves. The sound came up from the roots beneath the ground. It was as if the world beneath their feet thought Guinevere’s question was the best joke since the squirrel, the werewolf and the beaver had walked into a bar.
Danielle hated that joke. She hated the creeping taste of vomit that rose in her throat hearing the ground beneath her feet laughing. The creature itself moved when it laughed but the sound and movements were not synchronised.
Miss Longbow, survivor of battles with monsters and overwhelming imperial forces, had to clench every muscle not to soil herself. Her heart seemed to be punching against her armour to escape her chest and run off. Her mouth was dry, and had dropped open in horror.
Guinevere lost her composure as the world beneath her shook with mirth. She stepped back, lowering her center of mass and put her hand on the hilt of her sword.
It smiled with brown imitations of Danielle’s teeth. What it said next did not comfort the lady of Leonor or the girl from Fisher’s Gasp.
“It says the king’s tongue was the language of the trees, taught to people long ago. It says that we think it took our language. It thinks that’s hilarious.”
“I don’t ever want to hear it laughing again my lady. That sound is the only thing I can think of that might haunt me more than the memory of the trees devouring imperial soldiers. Please don’t make it laugh again.” Miss Longbow pleaded with naked fear. Her hand was on her own sword hilt. Cold sweat was beading on her forehead and the hairs on her neck were bristling. Her palms were slick with liquid terror.
She wanted to curl up in a ball and scream until she had forgotten that sound. She wanted to find Lupita and kiss her until she was too exhausted from sex to think. She wanted to find her mother and tell her she loved her even if she didn’t deserve it. Dammit she needed a fucking hug.
“I agree wholeheartedly.” Guinevere raised her hand slowly from her sword hilt and lifted the palm to show the curaduile. It was glowering at them with Danielle’s face except that the frightened girl from Fisher’s Gasp was certain she could not look half as menacing with all her efforts and a thousand years of practice. “We need the queen. Only she can decide how we proceed.” The armoured lady looked up to the wall and yelled. “Has someone summoned Queen Malin?”
“Yes my lady.”
The creature from her future nightmares spoke again with a voice that was ever less bark and branches, ever smoother, more human. When it wasn't looking at Lady Guinevere it was taking in the details of Danielle and perfecting its imitation. The burning acidic taste of vomit sat on her tongue.
“'S e do bheatha falbh còmhla rium,” said the lady of the realm and pointed with her open palm to the road. It nodded and smiled graciously, but with a superior smile she knew she was incapable of.
“We'll meet the queen to talk this over. She should talk to it herself.”
“Is that wise my lady? We have no idea what this thing is capable of.” Danielle knew that prudence was important but her instincts were screaming at her to hack at it with her father's sword until it was a pile of splinters.
“What is wisdom when trees save us from the empire then transform into us days later?” Guinevere asked. Guinevere's voice was as lost as the country girl felt. As the lady turned away from the monster and it followed, Miss Longbow saw the strangest, most logical oddity about the creature.
Whereas the front of the curaduile was a perfect physical imitation of her, complete with pores, the back was a vague mass of rough wood and bark shaped like a human but trailing off in detail. The thing which had taken in her appearance from sight had never seen her back, it could not guess what she looked like from behind.
The trio walked one behind the other to the northern gate of Leonor. Cursed trees similar to the one the curaduile had emerged from lined the thirty foot high granite northern wall of the city. As they walked, the guards on the wall followed them.
They were met at the gate by a wall of men surrounding the queen. Among those men was Danielle's friend Sir Fabian Castel. As ever, he looked dashing in his well polished armour and the green Crann Kingdom surcoat over the top.
Fabian's was the finest armour worn by any of the knights of the Queen's Guard. Silver and glittering like a mirror, it looked as fine on him as it surely had on his legendary father Lorenzo. Like all of the knights his sandy hair was cut short in mourning. Most citizens of Leonor had their hair shaved short to show respect for the many who had given their lives to defend the city in the battles just days before.
“Come no further,” Queen Malin demanded. She could barely be seen through the shoulders of the burly knights around her. All of their green surcoats were decorated with the Crann Kingdom symbol. The Tree of Crann, an oak, had been the symbol of the kingdom for hundreds of years. Danielle wasn't sure if that was irony. She'd have to ask her learned woman, Lupita.
A warm glow of memory took the soldier from Fisher's Gasp out of the moment as she remembered waking up in bed with Lupita that very morning. So beautiful. She tried to supress the thought and return to the moment.
“It speaks the kings tongue my queen,” said Lady Guinevere. “It calls itself a curaduile and us tineduile.”
“A tree warrior calls us fire killers? Fucking hell.” Some of the queen's guard turned their heads to have a glance at the frustrated monarch. “We traded extinction for madness didn't we? Let me see it men. Part. We shall talk here. If it is peaceful we will negotiate in the castle. If not, it will never set foot inside the city. Do you understand?”
“YES MY QUEEN,” said eight men of at least six foot in height, a woman almost as tall, and Fabian. Their chainmail sleeves stuck out from their surcoats. Their brown eyes were set firmly on the curaduile. With a Crann Kingdom Oak on each surcoat, they were a forest staring down a single tree.
“Dè do ghnothach rium?” asked the queen as the men around her stood to the side to give her eye contact with the thing that looked like Danielle. As she talked, the queen looked back and forth from the beast to her and Danielle felt a blush as if it was her fault.
The queen wore an infinitely more beautiful version of the Crann Oak on her surcoat which was imaculately stitched on vibrant green. The trunk and branches of her tree were gold. Her armour silvery steel with golden decoration. Her helm had a tiny crown circlet around the top. The nose guard did not hide her fiercely intelligent eyes.
“Carson a tha thu anns a' choire theth sin?” asked the curaduile with the same upward inflection as the queen.
“It asks why we are panicking,” said Queen Malin quietly. “My question for you, Danielle, daughter of Darren, is why it looks like you?” The queen's mismatched eyes, one blue and the other brown, bored into the daughter of the knight known as Darren the Disgraced.
“I was the first to stand face to face with it,” she said in a panicked rush. Why was she being interrogated by the queen instead of the monster? Queen Malin of Crann nodded.
“So it can take our shape. Not quite our appearance though. I will ask it what it's intentions are towards us.” She spoke to the creature in the king's tongue again and received a response that sounded almost like her, with a hint of Lady Guinevere and Danielle. “It wants to know why we fed our people to it and its siblings.”
“There are more of them?” Guinevere asked in a high voice.
“One per tree I presume.” The queen clarified that quickly as well. The creature nodded to her question. “So, now we need to count the trees to know their number? I will tell it that those people were not from Crann and had come to butcher us.” Queen Malin spoke rapidly. It was almost too fast for Danielle to hear individual words.
The queen laughed at the next response. Her laugh was short and bitter. “It says that in that case it owes its life to us, as do all of the new trees along the wall. It says that it knows how the first one came to be however, and that we must make a sacrifice of our own to pay for the initial injury done to other curaduile.” The queen sighed.
“It threatens us?” asked one of the queen's guard, starting to draw his sword.
The cuiraduile instantly lowered itself, claws grew from the fingers as its brilliant green eyes narrowed.
“NO!” Shouted the queen. “Swords in their scabbards, immediately.” Her head turned from side to side to check that her order had been obeyed. She looked at the cuiraduile. “Tha mi duilich. Sorry.”
“Tha mi agad a-nis.” It nodded with its eyes closed.
“If it requires a sacrifice then I will offer those who would have gone to the noose. Instead of making ourselves powerful enemies today we will secure allies who can help us when the empire returns. Would anyone prefer to fight the trees that devoured an army multitudes larger than all we have left in Leonor?” Her tone was that of a mother scalding stupid children.
“No my queen,” said the knights, one after the other, in mumbled tones.
When the queen made the offer the tree warrior nodded.
“Well thank fuck for that.” The queen held out her palm for the creature to shake.
“My queen?” asked Fabian in an anxious voice.
“Not a word Sir Fabian,” Queen Malin hissed.
A creature with a hand of living wood took the gauntleted hand of the queen and shook it. When it let go the tree thing bowed deeply to her.
“Mòran taing,” said the voice that was very much the queen's, a little bit Lady Guinevere's, with a hint of Danielle Longbow.
“Well that wasn't so fucking hard was it? You see boys, sometimes it pays to use your lips before pulling out your weapon. Your wives will agree with me.”
Some of the men laughed. Guinevere smirked. Fabian looked confused.
“And now that we have a new ally, we drink and we talk some more. Let it through and if any of you piss it off you'll be the first one I feed to it as payment for us cutting up the other one.”
The queen turned and disappeared between the bodies of her bodyguards. The curaduile followed behind them. Its back took on the form of the queen as it had seen her. Danielle watched them walking away towards the castle.
“What now my lady?” Danielle asked of Guinevere.
“Now we thank the gods for their grace and our lives. Queen Malin is right. That could have gone very differently. If any of the knights had been first on the scene instead of you-” She shook her head. “I'd rather not think about it. Well done Miss Longbow. Yet another story to tell of you. You've a knighthood in your future for sure. Good day to you Danielle.”
“Thank you lady-” The village girl didn't get to finish.
“After today just call me Gwen. You've earned it.” From the queen's closest confidant it was quite the honour.
“Thank you Gwen.”
Miss Longbow was left alone by the open gate to marvel at her day. After waking in bed with a beautiful woman she had trained with the entire city. Then she’d seen the queen make peace with a shapeshifting monster. Tired was inadequate to describe how she felt. She was going straight to bed. She wanted deep sleep and wet dreams.